Thoughts on the risks and rewards of writing novels
I want to express a few more thoughts about Alasdair Gray’s novel, Lanark, which I reviewed here two weeks ago. Reflecting, I felt I was a wee bit abrasive, even dismissive, of a novel a fellow writer spent thirty years at work on. I spent twelve years writing Bridge Across the Ocean, on and off, (I’m sure Gray wrote sporadically as well) and am certain mine’s a better book for the numerous revisions it underwent. I have no reason to doubt Gray followed a similar path to publication. Lanark was rejected by publishers time and again until Gray found the small Scottish press which appreciated his work, just as I found Brilliant Light, a Vermont publisher specializing in the work of New England authors.
One thing that hasn’t changed much in book publishing is how difficult it is to get published. In the earlier 20th century, authors we still read and love today were cruelly rejected by publisher after publisher – or perhaps we should say editor after editor, for until a few decades ago an individual editor like Maxwell Perkins could pretty much decide whether or not to accept a work. It became a committee decision, and soon after a marketing decision, which remains firmly entrenched in 21st-century publishing. The primary concern today is, “Will it sell?” always sadly preceding, “Is it a good story, well told?”
Se we can look back at Alasdair Gray’s publishing journey and clearly see Canongate Books, his indie publisher, was far less concerned about making money than in publishing a rather unique novel. We could see that concern as well when Sylvia Beach, owner of the Paris bookstore Shakespeare & Company, published James Joyce’s Ulysses when no other publisher dared to do.
No doubt about it, publishing a book in with the intent of making a lot of money is akin to a crap shoot. But so is writing one, especially a novel. The author fabricates characters, develops a story and a set of scenes in hopes of creating an immersive experience for the reader. There may be a (delusional) hope of producing something which will be read by hoardes of people and therefore become a bestseller, but that lightning rarely strikes.
The impulse and commitment to write, especially in the long form, emerge from an ineffable, creative place within the writer. It wells up as an urge to tell a story, and it is undeniable. I don’t know what drove Alasdair Gray to write his story, although I suspect he had to allow his own life to unfold over enough time to obtain the knowledge and experience to write a lifetime-long coming of age story. Surely many of the fictional people, places and events were drawn thus. My decade-long pregnancy (!) to give birth to Bridge Across the Ocean was different in many respects: I continued to feel there was a better story to be told than the one I had begun writing. In its first iteration White Bike was a revenge story, pure and simple. The second version, Shift, brought in the Spinner and with it the story of entrepreneurs and technological innovation. Bridge, the last, introduced business espionage and intellectual property theft – and romance. Oddly, there is little of myself in the characters and events, save for my love of cycling, New Hampshire, and Taiwan. Otherwise, the people, places and events are entirely fictional.
Every author pours heart and soul into their writing, no matter how good or how not-good their story is. Every author wants to write a good story and tell it as best they can. In the final analysis, that determination remains the reader’s. There is no magic formula to writing a great book. It’s simply about getting past the publishing gatekeepers, and waiting to see if, and how, it connects with its audience.